Christine takes a minute to smile for the camera at her post-race cookie party.

Christine takes a minute to smile for the camera at her post-race cookie party.

Our overseas correspondent Christine Vardaros catches us up on the end of her season, from races to cookie parties.

by Christine Vardaros

Our last weekend of real racing here in Europe ended with a double-header.  The first was at Cauberg Cyclocross in The Netherlands.  It was held where the 2012 Road World Championships will be held, and where Amstel-Gold finishes.  In fact, our finishing strip paralleled the infamous final climb. But contrary to the road version, our course was heavily layered with greasy, groovy mud.  With not much fitness or motivation left after almost 35 races in a bit over five months, I was lucky that the race was a technical one so I could place a solid 14th.

The next morning for our last official race at GVA Trofee’s Sluitingsprijs in Oostmalle,  I showed up with relatively fresh legs but fought hard to keep the motivation high for this final push.

Surprisingly, I arrived at the start line more motivated than I had expected.  But when I looked around at the riders and saw almost all of them were sporting pigtails, I felt like I had somehow missed some memo that went out to all the riders but me.  I was left out of something, which took my motivation down a notch I must admit. Maybe my memo was lost in the mail?  I turned to a pigtailed rider next to me to inquire about the new hairstyle that swept through the peloton.  She told me, “Well, don’t you know that we’re all paying tribute to Daphny [van den Brand] for her fine career?” And as if I didn’t already feel isolated enough, she added, “Well, where were you parked?” I was parked on the same runway strip as the rest of the teams – in fact, two cars over from this particular woman.  It was like high school all over again and I was once again the fencing nerd whom the cool kids ignored.

As for the rest of my tenuous motivation, it was directly snapped in half five seconds into the race when I was wrapped up in someone’s crash.  Not surprisingly, the wheel that lodged itself onto my handlebar belonged to the cheekiest rider of the peloton, who would think nothing of pushing you off a cliff to your death if it got her that one spot higher from 15th to 14th as I had been again reminded the day prior.  While I struggled to remove her wheel from my handlebar, I realized it was going to be a long day out in the field.  When you are nailed twice before the race even got started, it is hard to keep the focus going.

On such a course where there is only one rideable line for most of it aside from the start/finish strip, it was nearly impossible do much.  I spent the race repeatedly  trying to pass at all the wrong spots, such as tight singletrack and sandpits, which cost me boatloads of energy when it didn’t work out. But with no other options, I had to give it a go. My efforts got me past about ten riders before I was completely dead, nothing left to give. Game over.

After a recovery shake coupled with a de-stressing spin on the trainer, I switched into party mode. Since Oostmalle is the last real race of the season, it is always a party day for riders, teams and even spectators as they too have spent the whole winter in the rain, snow, and mud to support their favorite riders.  At the Peanut van, Jonas and I held our infamous Cookie Party. We do it as a thanks to everyone who shared the season with us and helped shaped it into a ball of wonderful memories. After spending an intense five months with the same people a few times a week, we become a family of sorts – sharing every experience, both good and bad.

On the menu were “American” chocolate chip cookies, cranberry cookies, fruit bars, thumbprints, fudge, brownies with and without nuts, coconut pistachio cookies, and rice crispy treats. All cookies were, of course, vegan but that didn’t seem to stop the folks from diving into them enthusiastically. For musical entertainment, we rocked a large collection of “Christine” songs that Jonas put together for the big event.

The drinks served were kept very Belgian with an assortment of Jenever. My favorite was Speculoos flavor, although I had only a sip since I was designated driver. Another alcoholic indulgence I allowed myself was a glass of champagne, courtesy of Daphny van den Brand who kindly shared her podium earnings with us! I suppose she didn’t notice that I skipped the pigtail thing. My guess is that if she did notice, she would have assumed I didn’t get the memo. As it was Marianne Vos who issued it, I am sure my exclusion was not intentional since she too was celebrating as usual at our cookie party.

Along with Van den Brand and Vos, there were many other fellow riders who showed up for the festivities.  Some of them were Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn, Jonathan Page, Amy Dombroski, teammate Mariusz Gil, Helen Wyman, Nikoline Hansen, Sophie de Boer, Tessa van Nieuwpoort, and Joachim Parbo. I am always amazed every time I get to know my fellow racers a bit more at events like these. Some of them have some really colorful personalities. Pity that it’s hard for spectators to see this side of the racers when the only get to watch them pass by in a race. This is yet another reason that racers – women racers in particular – need to be interviewed more. By the way, if you ever get a chance to ask Helen for instructions on how to paint, make sure you do it. She won’t disappoint.

Many of my supporters showed as well, which was very exciting for me. It was nice to interact with many of them for more than that quick pass as I ride by in a race. Without them, my racing here in Belgium would be a completely different (as in boring) experience. It also means a lot to have a steady collection of folks who stand by you, no matter the result.

By the time the last partygoer departed our cookie party, the sun had gone down and the parking lot was almost empty aside from the few overly drunk stragglers who were exchanging sloppily spit-out sentiments like, “I love you man!” as they tripped over each other. When a mini group stumbled their way in our direction and attempted to make conversation, I immediately told them we all speak English. It’s amazing how that can work to instantly cut off conversation when the instigators are barely able to have conversations in their mother tongue.

The post-cookie plan was to go out for a small dinner with a few folks like Jonathan and Cori Page, friends Jürgen and Sofie, and Mariusz, but after stuffing ourselves with too many cookies to cause a sugar coma, there was no longer room for real food. On the way home, though, Jonas and I somehow got a second wind and decided to go out for Indian food – extra spicy.  Just a warning to all those who attempt to mix cookies with spicy Indian, don’t do it. We both went to bed early with visions of cumin-chocolate-hot peppers dancing in our bellies.

The next morning, after enjoying a breakfast of cookies, I packed my bags for the last race of the season – Cyclocross Master Indoor Race in Hasselt, Belgium to be held two days later. It is called a race but it is more like a circus where the riders put on a real show. It starts off with the riders (20 men and 10 women) introduced one by one under actual disco lights. The first event of the evening is a time trial where we do one hot lap of the course. It sounds easier than it is though as the track is more of an obstacle course than UCI-standard. There is a carpeted staircase, followed by a steep double-decker descent that dumps us into a thick sandpit. Within seconds, we are flying over ramps (two choices – steep or scary steep) into the other sandpit.  My favorite is the barrier section made with oversized tree stumps.  Or maybe I like the random unlit sections scattered throughout the course where you can close your eyes and ride just as effectively.

Following the time trial, the Worlds podium riders go to battle – girls versus boys. With all the talk of Vos racing against the men, it will be her first opportunity to give it a go. But we must not forget that Daphny and Sanne [Cant] are also in good form so I look forward to checking it out.

Afterwards, there is a 20 minute women’s race and a men’s 30 minute race. Last time I did this event, I flew over Helen.  I came down the double-ramp descent and as it is so steep, I didn’t see the sandpit until I was almost in it. Helen was lying upside down in the sand. After I smacked into her and catapulted across the sand, we had a mini conversation – one you could expect from an American and a Brit. It went something like this, “Sorry, didn’t see you there.” “Oh, no worries. You OK?” “Yeah, but I think I broke your wheel.” “Aah. It’ll be fine. Shall we get on with it then?” “Yeah, after you.” “Thank you.” “Don’t mention it.”  As pleasant as it was, my goal this time around is to have a clean race, meaning lots of endo-free fun – saving the conversation for later when we have our second cookie party with all the leftovers from Oostmalle.

Thanks for all your wonderful emails and kind words over a long, trying season!  It surely helped propel me forward race after race.